AS Byatt, novelist, 1936-2023

A.S. Byatt

AS Byatt wrote a book called The Virgin in the Garden that takes place during the 1953 coronation celebrations for Queen Elizabeth II. The main characters are two sisters who are very smart. In the sequel, Still Life, the sisters have finished university and have to decide between having a career and having children.

A.S. Byatt - Figure 1
Photo Financial Times

Stephanie, the older woman, picks out babies and weds the parish priest, encounters depression after childbirth, and meets her end from a shock by her refrigerator. This artwork depicting domestic limitations is not delicate. Not since the death of the underprivileged self-taught man, Leonard Bast, who died due to a falling bookshelf in EM Forster's Howard's End, has household furniture been used so lethally in English literature to represent how obstacles such as sex or class can diminish one's intellectual capacity.

Frederica, who is the younger sibling, flees from an oppressive and harmful union and opts for literature as her escape. She is not afraid to question things and might come off as overconfident. Even though she initially faced difficulties as a temporary lecturer, she eventually gains widespread recognition as a respected cultural presenter. In two subsequent tales, she serves as the leading character and people often interpret her as a symbol for Byatt herself. The author even confessed in a BBC interview that she had been labeled "arrogant" by her peers in school, similar to how Frederica is perceived.

However, people in Frederica noticed that Byatt's sister Margaret Drabble, who also had a successful career and liked to wear fashionable clothes, resembled her. Although they grew up in a family that valued literature, Drabble became a renowned fiction writer at a young age, while Byatt faced challenges in establishing herself as an expert in metaphysical poetry.

The late Byatt, aged 87, frequently commented that getting married and becoming a mother made her feel even more separate and financially unstable during her initial academic years. Once she relocated to Durham University in 1959, any female who tied the knot would automatically forfeit her funding for research, whereas a male in the same circumstance would experience an increase in his funding.

In the first book written by Byatt, Shadow of a Sun, the central theme revolved around the relationship between a daughter and her father. In her second book, The Game, the story portrayed the lives of two sisters who were grown up, with the younger one being a low-class writer while the elder a sophisticated scholar of the medieval time period. However, their childhood games had a lasting impact on them, as they still carried the scars from the mental and physical battles they fought, using whatever means necessary to hurt each other.

In the end, the writer ruthlessly portrays the scholar in a novel and as a result, she commits suicide. Drabble had released her own story about feuding sisters, titled "A Summer Bird Cage," in 1963 and it was highly praised. Due to the lackluster reception of her first two books, Byatt did not publish any more fiction for ten years.

At that time, she had ended her marriage with Ian Byatt but held onto his last name. The year 1978 marked a turning point in her professional life with the publication of her novel The Virgin in the Garden. This led to the popular story of her ongoing conflict with Margaret Drabble becoming part of cultural folklore. This literary spat was later referenced in a 2009 episode of the popular British TV show Peep Show, where a drug dealer known as Super Hans breaks up an argument between two flatmates by shouting "Oi, oi, oi! Byatt! Drabble! Relax!" It is rare for literary rivalries to gain mainstream attention like this.

Antonia Susan Drabble came into this world in Sheffield, England back in 1936. She was the oldest child of Richard who worked as a QC and later became a County Court judge, and Kathleen who used to be a literature teacher. Antonia's mother had to give up her career to take care of the family, which initially made Antonia resentful, but she later felt empathetic towards her mother's situation.

One of the most crucial moments in her family's life was when her 11-year-old son Charles passed away. Sadly, a drunk driver took his life while he was at the doorstep of her dear friend Frank Kermode. She wrote a poem about this tragedy called "A Dog, A Horse, A Rat." The title was inspired by a line in King Lear, but the words of the poem were simple and direct, consisting of mostly one-syllable words. The lines were heart-wrenching, as she wrote, "But every breath I take, whether in joy or pain, reminds me that he will never come back."

In other areas, Byatt's writing was not as straightforward and contained more intricate layers of symbolism and intertext. Her most popular work, besides the Frederica Quartet, is Possession. The novel follows two modern-day academics who uncover a passionate love story between two Victorian poets by analyzing clues found in historical archives. In 1990, the book received the prestigious Booker Prize.

In the movie version that came out in 2002, Gwyneth Paltrow played the lead role. However, this adaptation didn't include much of Byatt's detailed Victorian poetry parodies. In contrast, Philip Haas's film, which was released in 1995, did a better job of capturing Byatt's sophisticated style. The film managed to showcase her interest in subjects like fairy tales, the world of insects, and scientific classification, which can also be seen in her captivating collection of short stories called The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye.

After initially focusing on the works of Milton and Spencer, the author went on to release two acclaimed books about Iris Murdoch, her beloved mentor. She remained accepted within the esteemed circles of academia and was a frequent guest on the BBC. Upon arriving at the broadcasting studio, she was often seen carrying a roll of Sellotape.

Matthew Sweet remembered how she would fiddle with something in order to relax herself, while she talked about all sorts of diverse topics like genetics, Ragnarok, Komodo dragons, and even fairies. She had an entire universe within her.

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